A mysterious letter has stirred up the recurring accusations and suspicions about election fraud through absentee ballots in Sweetwater.
In the letter addressed to State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, a woman claims that City Commissioner Isolina Maroño tried to extort a resident to manipulate her vote by absentee ballot. A copy of the letter was mailed to elected officials in Sweetwater, local and state authorities, the Miami Herald, and CBS4. On March 23, another commissioner, Manuel Duasso, reported the letter to the police.
Now, investigators from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement are looking into the case, visiting elderly housing facilities in Sweetwater and interviewing residents and administrators about possible irregular activities related to the absentee ballots, several sources told el Nuevo Herald.
Maroño denied the allegations, and a spokeswoman from the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office said she could not confirm an investigation or comment.
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In Sweetwater, elections are usually defined by absentee votes. In the 2013 elections, 70 percent voted by absentee ballot, according to the Miami-Dade Elections Department. A spokeswoman said the ballots for the May 12 election would be distributed the week of April 20.
The letter was signed by Elena Puig, with the address of one of the elderly housing facilities in the city, Sweetwater Towers, 10750 SW Fourth St.
In the letter, Puig claims that Maroño warned her mother, who lives in the building, as well as other tenants, that a woman named Miriam Mallea would help them fill out their ballots and mail it for them.
El Nuevo Herald could not verify the identify of the letter’s author. Employees from Sweetwater Towers, a building managed by the organization Volunteers of America, said no one name Elena Puig lived there.
Puig wrote that Maroño told residents they should vote for the candidates she preferred –– Orlando Lopéz for mayor, and Saul Díaz and José Guerra for commissioner –– or they could lose their apartment and supplementary food items.
Mallea, a municipal employee, could not be reached by phone.
“I writing to request your assistance since I believe that Commissioner Isolina Maroño has extorted and pressure my mother to vote for candidates contrary to her wishes and in a manner that may be beneficial to [her] political agenda,” the letter said. “This is nothing new. Prior to every election Commissioner Maroño visits Sweetwater Towers and probably every other low income building seeking absentee ballots from elderly citizens to influence our local election.”
Employees from Sweetwater Towers told a reporter that FDLE investigators visited the building to inquire about Puig but declined to comment further. Volunteers of America’s main office did not respond to an interview request last week.
On April 1, Maroño denied the allegations and said the letter was made up by someone inside the campaign of Mayor José M. Díaz –– who is running against López –– to intimidate her and prevent her from visiting the senior citizens.
“For more than 20 years, I have visited the elderly and helped them with whatever they needed. The building manager has never stopped me from visiting,” Maroño said. “If they ask my opinion, I will tell them which candidates are the best, but they already know which candidates to vote for.”
In Sweetwater, like in other municipalities in Miami-Dade, it is common for politicians and their campaign aides to visit senior citizen complexes before elections to win their vote.
Maroño insisted she had not visited Sweetwater Towers in about three months and added that her visits to the elderly are less frequent since she became a commissioner in 2013.
Díaz, who ascended as mayor after the arrest of former Mayor Manuel “Manny” Maroño –– Isolina Maroño’s son –– for public corruption in 2013, denied that anyone in his campaign had sent the letter.
“It is not my campaign style to turn those kinds of tactics of accusing others anonymously just because they are my opposition,” Díaz said. “We don’t see eye to eye in politics, but I have nothing personal against her.”
This isn’t the first time authorities have investigated Maroño in a case involving absentee ballots.
In 2007, investigators from the former Miami-Dade anti-corruption unit questioned Isolina Maroño and commissioner Manuel Duasso, who had several absentee ballots in their car.
The investigation concluded that collection of absentee ballots was a common practice in Sweetwater during elections, el Nuevo Herald previously reported. Former mayor Maroño and the then-Police Chief Roberto Fulgueira admitted knowing about these activities, according to reports from the investigation. During the investigation, Fulgueira told an investigator that absentee ballots were collected in Sweetwater, even during State Attorney Fernandez Rundle’s campaign.
At the time, there was no penalty in the county ordinance to prohibit the collection of absentee ballots, and Assistant State Attorney Johnette Hardiman closed the case in May 2007.
Now the possession of more than absentee ballots is considered a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Isolina Maroño insisted she knows the rules.
“I know what is prohibited, and I am not dumb,” she said.